Switzerland: CO2 bill defeated – for a real solution to the climate crisis

A bill to reduce CO2 emissions was rejected by a public referendum in Switzerland. While the demagogic far-right SVP and big oil companies were pushing a 'no' vote for reactionary reasons, in reality, this was a rejection of green austerity. The climate crisis will not be solved by making workers pay, but by expropriating the fatcat polluters and fighting for socialist measures.


In a referendum in Switzerland last Sunday, the population rejected new legislation on CO2 emissions by 51.6 percent. This is a serious blow to almost all the political parties, who were united behind this bill.

The bill, passed by parliament, aimed to reduce Switzerland's greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The main measures aimed at achieving this goal were an increase of an already existing steering tax on carbon emissions (that is, on heating oil and fuel), as well as a new charge on airline tickets of between 30 Swiss francs (27.40€) and 120 Swiss francs (109.80€). The additional revenue from these taxes would have gone into a "climate fund" to support property owners in renovating buildings, to support "innovative companies" in researching green technology, and to support the public sector in infrastructure projects.

Part of the revenue from these consumer taxes was to flow directly back to the population (by deducting a flat amount from the health insurance bill, which all Swiss residents are required to pay). This redistribution mechanism, so the argument went, was intended to ensure that the poorer population, which tends to have lower CO2 emissions than the rich, would also have to pay less or, in some cases, even receive a little more money back. This mechanism was a compromise, with which the bourgeoisie bought the approval of all the major left parties and the trade unions, and which was supposed to appease the working-class population.

The law was supported by a broad cross-class alliance of almost all parliamentary parties from right to left: the liberal FDP, the Green Liberals, the Centre (a newly formed bourgeois party, mainly coming from the collapsing Christian Democrats), the Greens and the social-democratic SP.

Marco Chiesa Image Marco Antonio ChiesaThe only party that opposed the law was the right-wing, demagogic Swiss People's Party (SVP), which managed to present itself as the defender of the 'small man' / Image: Marco Antonio Chiesa

The only party that opposed the law was the right-wing, demagogic Swiss People's Party (SVP). While the party has been going through a crisis in recent years and has lost some importance, it is still the party and the most important party of Swiss big business. It was this party that took up the referendum against the CO2 legislation. The referendum is one of the main instruments of direct democracy in Switzerland, by which parties or citizens can submit a new law to the vote of the people if they manage to collect enough signatures (50,000). This was the reason for the vote on 13 June.

In a manner typical of this party, in a tough and heavily funded voting campaign, together with the oil lobby, the SVP argued the law would make driving and heating more expensive for the population, thus presenting itself as the defender of the ordinary people, while it was really defending big business. As a matter of fact, despite their rhetoric, they never cared about ordinary people. As the main party of the bourgeoisie, they were chiefly responsible for austerity and for every single attack on the lives of the working class in the last two or three decades.

The capitalists were divided over the CO2 law. The oil industry, for obvious reasons, opposed it, while important sectors of industry were in favour. Mainly because the law was greenwashing their dirty business without affecting them in any significant way. This was also the case for the important Swiss banking sector and the biggest companies. The most important employers’ federation, Economiesuisse, was even criticised by the Swiss Banking Association for not having campaigned enough in favour of the new law.

The social-democratic SP campaigned heavily in favour of the new CO2 law. They were ultimately decisive in making the law seem left-wing and in presenting it as an important step forward in the fight against climate change. This channelled the honest hopes of many climate activists in the direction of parliamentarism and the politics of class compromise.

The resulting compromise, the new CO2 law, was in fact nothing more than “green austerity”, the ecological mirror image of bourgeois crisis politics. The social democrats justified this dirty compromise, arguing the law represented the best that was possible to negotiate. This pessimistic outlook was combined with plain alarmism about how rejecting the law meant supporting the right-wing racist SVP and the oil industry, and would throw back the climate movement for years to come, thus delegitimising criticism of the law from the left. The traditional party of the working class flatly denied that only the working class can solve the climate crisis.

The “Climate Strike” youth movement was divided over the new CO2 legislation. The majority of the climate movement, especially in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, followed the Social Democracy and the Greens in backing the CO2 Bill, even if they were somewhat reluctant to campaign in favour of it, especially because the bill was seen as not going far enough. For the same reason, parts of the climate strike in French-speaking Switzerland campaigned against the CO2 Bill, forming a small alliance for a left-wing ecological "No" to the new law, in which the Swiss section of the IMT also participated.

The Swiss Marxists from the beginning have taken a clear stand against the CO2 Bill, arguing for the need to unite the proletariat instead of driving parts of the working class away from the climate movement by making them pay more for everyday expenses.

The rejection of the law by the Swiss electorate was a hard blow for all parties in the cross-class alliance supporting the law. The liberal FDP, once the bedrock of the Swiss bourgeois state, has been in steady decline for decades and has been trying to reinvent itself in recent years. After a supposed "ecological turn" in 2019 under pressure from the climate strike movement and growing ecological awareness in the public opinion, the Liberals had been decisive in passing this CO2 legislation in parliament. Party president Petra Gössi who was the main responsible for this “ecological turn” resigned the day after the vote defeat, leaving the party deeply divided over the ecological question and many other issues.

Many people conscious of the need for action against the climate crisis had projected their hopes onto this CO2 Bill. Their hopes were shattered at the ballot box, leaving them with a sense of bitterness.

After the vote last Sunday, Der Funke/L’étincelle, the Swiss section of the International Marxist Tendency, addressed ourselves with the following appeal to all those who seriously want to fight against climate change, explaining why the CO2 law failed and what we have to do now.

An appeal by the Marxist tendency, Der Funke, to all who seriously wish to combat climate change: why the CO2 Bill failed and how we must proceed

Climate change poses an enormous danger for all of humanity. In recent years, the Climate Strike movement has enabled a consciousness of the urgency about the situation to arise amongst wide layers of the Swiss population.

Certainly, the voters’ rejection is a hard blow to all who struggled with the best intentions for the passing of this bill. To many, especially within the Climate Strike movement, the CO2 Bill was a small and insufficient step, but still a step towards the goal of climate neutrality. To those, we say: don’t mourn - we must understand why the bill failed and we have to draw the right lessons and political conclusions.

How to explain the rejection of the CO2 Bill?

The rejection of the bill was not a rejection of environmental protection measures. It was a rejection of the kind of environmental politics that hold regular, working-class people responsible for the destruction of our climate instead of the real culprits: corporations and banks. It was a rejection of an attempt to greenwash bourgeois politics without truly tackling the issue at hand.

It was not the dishonest campaign led by the national conservative SVP (Swiss People’s Party) and Big Oil that ultimately defeated the CO2 Bill. The working class of Switzerland is not stupid and it does not blindly fall for this kind of campaign. The unpopularity of the CO2 Bill is clearly linked to a material base: the rejection mirrored the decades-long experience of the working class. In Switzerland, too, salaries have been stagnant for decades, even though rent, health, and other expenditures have been steadily growing. The younger generations of today are the first to have worse outlooks on life than their parents. All the while, inequality is on the rise and the super-rich even manage to increase their gains during this historic coronavirus crisis.

With the CO2 Bill, then, the workers got to decide about policy that would have rendered necessary, recurring expenses even more expensive. The campaign in favour of the bill tried arguing that the additional expenses would have been more than compensated for by the redistribution mechanism. But people were faced with the very real prospect that this new bill would have meant higher outgoings at the end of the month. For many workers, whether and how this redistribution would work was of secondary importance in view of this painful moment, in which the cost of a tank full of gas, a warm home in winter, plane tickets during their well-earned holidays, would increase.

After a quarter-century of rising living costs, the prospect of an immediate price hike hit a sore spot and was the main reason for rejection. Already, the last polls before the vote made clear that the additional costs for heating and gasoline were the most important arguments against the bill. Accordingly, the poorer layer of the working class with monthly salaries between 3,000 and 5,000 CHF came out the strongest against the CO2 Bill, with a 61 percent rejection rate.

With this bill, the working class was essentially told that it had to spend more money now, but that it would eventually receive it back somehow. It was confronted with this quite dubious “deal”, while those who actually caused the destruction of the climate got off scot-free. These were the capitalists, who blindly destroy the environment in their search for profits and are not willing to invest in environmentally friendly technologies, unless they can provide even more profits!

For these reasons, the Marxist Tendency has fought the bill since its inception. We did our best to bring a socialist position to bear, so as to replace a simple rejection with a positive alternative. The CO2 Bill would not have been “a step forward” or the “lesser evil”, because it drove parts of the working class away from a real solution for the climate question. And if the SVP now seems the victor, it is only because the blunders committed by the large organisations and parties on the left made it possible for these reactionary demagogues to pretend they defended the “small man”.

Learning from errors: socialist climate politics instead of alliances with the bourgeois!

For the supporters of the CO2 Bill who truly want to fight climate change, there are different possible reactions to their defeat.

The wrong reaction is the kind of cynicism and arrogant moralising that puts the blame on a supposedly “stupid” and “conservative” populace. Equally, supporting the CO2 Bill was not correct, due to the reasons outlined above, but it was an understandable position to hold. And It certainly was not simply “stupid” to vote in favour of the bill with the best intentions. What truly is stupid is further driving away the significant portion of the working class that rejected the bill for legitimate reasons, by insulting them as “idiots” and naïve victims of Big Oil lobbying and SVP propaganda!

Swiss climate strike 3 2For a socialist solution to the climate crisis! / Image: Der Funke/l‘étincelle

The correct reaction is to soberly draw the conclusion that the working class cannot and must not be held financially responsible for environmental politics. In turn, this implies that the real culprits must be held accountable: the capitalists. The working class was split on the question of the CO2 Bill because it was forced into an internal conflict. It had to decide between a (wildly inadequate) environmental protection scheme and protecting its own, immediate living standards. It’s no coincidence then that the disproportionally climate-conscious youth also disproportionately rejected the bill. It is the youth that is most directly confronted with the systemic crisis of capitalism.

The working class today is the overwhelming majority of the population. Its members are not unified today, they elect different parties and vote differently on acts and referendums. The working class does however share an objective interest in enjoying good living standards and in solving the climate crisis. Conversely, it does not have even the smallest objective interest in a polluting, destructive industry. Based on politics in favour of the whole working class, it can be won over for the fight against climate change.

It is only the capitalists who constantly have to subordinate humans and the environment to the profit margin. They are not on our side, those who wish to put an end to the climate crisis. The demarcation line does not run between supposedly good and climate-friendly capitalists and the evil supporters of the oil industry. Concerning the climate and every other social question, the line runs between the classes: the working class and the bourgeoisie. Their interests and aims are mutually exclusive.

The science and technologies required for the construction of a sustainable economy exist today. However, we cannot reach this goal with market “solutions” like tax incentives or CO2 certificate trading. Enormous investments must be poured into the ecological transformation of production, transport, housing, and so on - and these investments must be paid for. The capitalists will, on their own, invest nowhere near enough into this project. They have to be forced, and bourgeois politicians are not prepared to do this. They defend the capitalist economy and are entirely on the side of capital.

The climate question cannot be solved by compromise and alliances with apparently “climate-friendly” bourgeois politicians of the Liberal FDP, the Centre, Green-Liberals and most Greens against the “evil” SVP and Big Oil. The fight against climate change can only succeed through the struggle of the wage-laboring majority against the small minority of capitalists and all of their bourgeois political defenders who would rather sacrifice the whole of humanity than their profits.

Was time wasted?

Some supporters of the CO2 Bill have held that a rejection would waste precious time and move climate neutrality far into the uncertain future. However, this is an entirely inverted approach. It assumes that climate change can be prevented within the capitalist system and through the bourgeois state’s laws. This assumption lacks any rational core: capitalism is the cause of the ecological crisis and, at the same time, the biggest obstacle to its resolution. Within the capitalist system, climate change can never be solved. As long as investments are profit-oriented, as long as every corporation and nation works against each other without any greater societal coordination - as long as these factors persist, we are directly headed towards ecological and social catastrophe. To resolve the climate crisis is to defeat capitalism.

Yes, we need every step forward, small as it might be. However, a true step forward is only what increases the unity of the working class in its struggle against the capitalists. In this regard, we really did waste important time - not by rejecting the CO2 Bill, but because the traditional organisations of the working class, the Social Democrats and trade unions, alongside a majority of the Climate Strike movement, supported the Yes vote. In doing that, they completely disregarded organising the working class on a basis of left opposition to the CO2 Bill and in favour of impactful and socially acceptable climate politics. This was a step in the wrong direction, but this does not mean all is lost.

Even before the vote, the slogan of “Climate Justice” was popular within the Climate Strike movement. After the CO2 Bill’s rejection, the Climate Strike immediately pointed out that any further measures must not victimise the working class, and that any suspicions that they might be to the detriment of less affluent people must be dispelled. They went on to state that the aim must now squarely be put on the Swiss financial centre, multinationals, and the rich. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic leadership reacted with the motto “Now more than ever!” and an appeal to focus on the financial centre instead of the working populace. If this defeat turns out to be the wake-up call that drove the left supporters of the CO2 Bill to go on the offensive against the real enemies, against banks and corporations, then this defeat is the best outcome any of us could have hoped for!

For the nationalisation of banks and corporations!

The Social Democrats made public just after the ballot defeat that they are now preparing a popular initiative focusing on the Swiss financial centre. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Banks are the nerve centres of modern capitalism: through credit, banks essentially decide where money flows. And it always flows towards the highest profits. Banks are well aware and knowledgeable of the profitability and condition of varying sectors and firms. In the big banks, all threads of a modern capitalist economy run together. A sustainable economy is beyond any doubt reliant on liberating banks from the profit motive and placing them under control of the working class.

But this approach can only succeed if the traditional organisations of the working class and the climate movement break with today’s reformist line. What should this offensive against banks and corporations look like?

  1. Expropriation instead of regulation! It will not suffice to “regulate” banks and to demand that they cease investing in fossil fuels. As long as the profit motive reigns, capital will flow to where it is most profitable. Banks have to be liberated from this profit motive. This in turn can only be achieved by tearing them from the greedy hands of capitalists: you cannot control what you don’t own. In today’s situation, every demand short of the expropriation and nationalisation of banks is insufficient. Nationalised and under the democratic control of the working class, banks can become rallying points to consciously organize and plan all the vast resources of our society, so that they might be used where they are most necessary: For the ecological transformation of society, in healthcare, in education, and so on.
  2. Working-class mobilisation instead of parliamentarism! It is impossible to make significant gains against banks and corporations through the parliament. The popular initiative must not become a tool for the SP to merely increase pressure with the goal of striking yet another deal with bourgeois parliamentarians or reaching new, harmful compromises. Time is running out and we cannot afford the glacial pace of traditional instruments of Swiss democracy such as the popular initiative. Such an initiative in and of itself is entirely unable to solve the problem. Only by relying on the forces of a united working class can we successfully fight the banks and corporations. The main goal must be to rally and strengthen the working class behind demands of nationalisation to pay for ecological transformation and a social action plan. Banks and corporations must pay for the crises of climate and capitalism! If the Social Democrats and trade unions now start to make efforts to mobilise hundreds of thousands of workers for national mass protests in autumn, then all signatures necessary for the popular initiative would also easily be gathered in one single day. Also, the working class would be strengthened and united for the next steps ahead.
  3. Class struggle instead of compromises! Only by clearly and unambiguously demanding that banks and polluting corporations directly pay for their damages can such a popular initiative succeed. However, for bourgeois forces such as the Liberal FDP, Green-Liberals, the Centre Party and parts of the Green Party it will be absolutely impossible to join in to this demand. This demand puts the question of class at the very centre: the contradiction between the toiling majority of the population and the capitalist elites. Any initiative aiming to advance the struggle for the environment must therefore refrain from trying to form a broad alliance with bourgeois forces. Otherwise, the class aspect will necessarily be downplayed or ignored, the forces of the working class weakened again. This fight can only be fought by clearly drawing the line between us and the capitalists and their representatives.

In this way, we can make enormous advances in the fight against climate change. Not by dividing the working class, but based on a socialist programme that builds on the objective interests of the whole working class. We, the Marxist tendency, Der Funke, have defended this position so far and will continue doing so with all we’ve got! The most important contribution in the fight against climate change you can make is to organize with us and join in on the struggle for socialism in our lifetime!

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